Detectives consider corporate manslaughter charge in NHS maternity scandal involving 200 families

Today, former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said he was “deeply concerned” about the new revelations and added that this latest scandal showed “deep-seated cultural and systemic issues” in maternity care.

Detectives are examining a series of baby deaths at a troubled NHS trust as the number of cases being investigated by an independent inquiry nears 200 – making it one of the worst maternity scandals in NHS history.

The Independent has learned officers in the serious crime directorate at Kent Police are looking at unsafe maternity care at the East Kent Hospitals University Trust and have held a series of high-level meetings, including with the Crown Prosecution Service.

The discussions are believed to centre on the possibility of opening a criminal investigation and bringing charges related to corporate manslaughter and/or gross negligence manslaughter.

If this goes ahead, it would be only the second time an NHS trust had faced a corporate manslaughter charge.

The original independent inquiry into East Kent was set up last year after The Independent revealed scores of babies had died at the trust between 2014 and 2018, while more than 100 others suffered brain damage during birth.

It is understood that the number of cases now being formally looked into by the inquiry is close to 200, although officials have refused to give a precise number.

East Kent maternity services have already come under fire this year, after admitting in April that they failed to provide safe care to baby Harry Richford and his mother Sarah in a landmark case brought by the Care Quality Commission. It is due to be sentenced in June and faces an unlimited fine.

Kent detectives have met on several occasions with the inquiry’s team – led by Dr Bill Kirkup – as it begins its work ahead of a final report due at the end of 2022.

Detective Chief Superintendent Paul Fotheringham, head of major crime at Kent Police, told The Independent: “We received information in August 2020 relating to baby deaths in East Kent hospitals. This information is being assessed and detectives from the Kent and Essex serious crime directorate are carrying out a scoping exercise, whilst making a number of enquiries.”

Harry Richford’s death at the Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother Hospital in Margate in 2017 could be central to any corporate manslaughter charge.

Concerns have been raised that the trust bosses did not learn from a damning review by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 2015, and that errors that were repeated in Harry’s death.

Last year a coroner ruled his death was “wholly avoidable” and contributed to by neglect.

Harry’s grandfather Derek Richford, told The Independent: “We would welcome a police inquiry into all the baby deaths at East Kent hospitals trust over the last 10 years.

“Specifically in Harry’s case we feel there needs to be more accountability and maybe a police inquiry will bring that level of accountability that we have been looking for for some time.”

He described the number of affected families now reaching almost 200 as “shocking” adding: “From everything I know and have been told this would make East Kent the second biggest maternity scandal in NHS history after Shrewsbury.

“I have known there were other cases, some going back quite a long time. There have been many families getting in touch and their overriding comment to me is to say ‘thank you for giving us a voice’ which really resonates with me because the hospital tried to shut us down, but they were unsuccessful.”

Helen Gittos, whose baby Harriet died in August 2014 when she was just eight days old, said she had feared for a long time that there were more families affected and that she felt regret for not doing more.

She said: “I feel very confident that the way the inquiry is proceeding will get to the heart of how and why things went so wrong. It’s horrifying that our private life-changing tragedy was something so almost routine.”

Under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, an NHS trust can be guilty of corporate manslaughter if the way its services are managed or organised causes a patient’s death and amounts to “a gross breach of a relevant duty of care owed by the organisation to the deceased”.

A gross breach is defined as actions or inaction that “fall far below what can reasonably be expected”.

The only other NHS corporate manslaughter case to reach court was taken against Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust in 2016 over the death of mum-of-two Frances Cappuccini. The case later collapsed at trial.

Concerns over maternity safety nationally have prompted an inquiry by MPs on the Health Committee which is due to publish in the coming months.

Mr Hunt, chair of the committee, told The Independent: “Many of these serious incidents [at East Kent] were taking place at the very same time we were tackling the horrors of Morecambe Bay, where 11 babies died avoidably between 2004 and 2013. Coming on the back of the Shrewsbury and Telford scandal – which probably spanned 40 years and potentially thousands of incidents of poor maternity care – it is impossible to dismiss any of these as isolated events.”

He added: “I believe we must face up to the fact that there are deep-seated cultural and systemic issues in our maternity care. Huge progress has been made on stillbirth and neonatal death rates, and the NHS should be proud of its record of improvement here, but we have still not found a systemised way to learn from serious mistakes to prevent future families suffering harm.

“As we emerge from the pandemic and the true horrors of East Kent and Shrewsbury and Telford come to light through these inquiries, making maternity care safer must be one of the government’s top priorities, and the select committee will be holding them to account.”

NHS England has injected almost £100m into maternity safety following a campaign by The Independent. The money will include an increase in midwives and doctors as well as £26m for specific safety training.

The new chairman of East Kent Hospitals, Niall Dickson, a former head of the General Medical Council, told the trust board last month the inquiry by Bill Kirkup “will undoubtedly be hard to read because we know that there are families we have failed by not providing the right standard of care”.

He committed the trust to becoming a learning organisation and said it must respond “without defensiveness and use it to understand as fully as possible the experience of mothers, babies and their families.”

A spokesperson for East Kent Hospitals said it had not yet been contacted by Kent Police but if a criminal investigation was opened “we would of course cooperate fully”.

They added: “We thank the families who have come forward to share their experiences of using our maternity services with the independent investigation and remain committed to continuing to make improvements.”

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